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Merinda Davis | courtesy photo Principal Tina Blomqvist, with students from Aleksis Kevi School guide Utah teachers around their school. They answered questions and talked about school life in Finland.
What can Utah schools learn from education leader Finland?
Education » Finns eschew testing and long hours, yet students score higher.
First Published Jul 18 2014 10:51 am • Last Updated Jul 19 2014 09:57 pm

It’s a country that shies away from high-stakes school testing.

It’s a place where teachers are required to have master’s degrees, students spend less time in school than in the U.S. and early childhood education programs are available to all kids.

At a glance

Essays from Utah teachers: What can our schools learn from Finland?

Several of the 32 Utah teachers who recently visited Finland and other countries with Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Europe have written essays sharing their thoughts.

Denise Jamsa: Can we turn Finnish education values into Utah realities?

Russ McKell: Having the time to show students you care

Tara Black: Seeing the big picture in Finland

Laura Nelson: Training great teachers the Finnish way

Donell Willey: Getting students involved in the adult world

Linda Davis: Finland sees kids as ‘our greatest natural resource’

Patti White: Finland’s broader approach to special education

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To some Utahns, the school system in Finland might sound like a dream, and, to others, a backward approach. But there’s no arguing with the results: Finland’s students rank far higher than those in the U.S. on international PISA tests.

At a time when Utahns are searching for ways to improve education — debating everything from new academic standards to teacher training to technology — some are turning to Finland for the answers.

More than 30 Utah educators recently visited the small Nordic nation as part of a Brigham Young University trip to learn about the schools there.

They were struck by a number of differences between Utah and Finnish schools. They saw strategies in Finland that might work in Utah, and others that might not translate.

Wade Jacoby, a BYU political science professor who directs the Center for the Study of Europe, which led the trip, said incorporating more of Finland’s strategies would Utah more globally competitive.

"You can’t be mediocre in schools and be a world beater in every other category," Jacoby said, specifically criticizing Utah’s relatively low per-pupil funding. "It’s doesn’t work like that."

A profession of prestige » Perhaps the biggest difference many of the Utah teachers noticed can be described in one word: respect.

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In Finland, teaching is a prestigious profession, and not just anyone can enter it. Only about 10 percent of applicants are accepted into teacher education programs.

All teachers also must earn master’s degrees. Once teaching, they earn between 89 percent and 110 percent of what other college-educated professionals make there, according to 2010 data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In the U.S., teachers earn between 67 percent and 72 percent of what other college-educated professionals do.

Such respect seems to help Finland attract and retain the best educators, said Merinda Davis, a social studies teacher at Orem’s Lakeridge Junior High. She said if teachers in the U.S. had to go through a similar training process, they might be more respected here as well.

"We really highly respect lawyers and doctors because of the training they have," Davis said.

Several of the educators said Finns’ respect for teachers means a high level of trust as well.

"You obviously feel you can trust those folks to run their own classrooms without a whole lot of monitoring and oversight," Jacoby said.

Does testing hurt or help? » Such trust may be part of the reason Finns don’t seem hung up on data and test scores, said Tara Black, a second-grade teacher at Indian Hills Elementary in Salt Lake City.

Finnish students generally take tests written by their teachers instead of standardized exams. The one big, national test they do take comes at the end of their general upper secondary educations, and is often used for admission to college.

Compare that with the U.S., where testing has become the basis of school accountability and improvement programs. In Utah, the vast majority of students take new SAGE tests toward the end of each school year, and high school students take the ACT college entrance exam.

Black said a surprising moment of the trip, for her, was when one of the Americans asked school leaders how their test scores compared with those of a nearby school.

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